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10 tips for running successful focus

groups
by Thomas L. Greenbaum

How often do we researchers take time to reflect on our


work and identify the key lessons that might be useful to
others in the profession or considering entering it?

I have spent most of the last 15 years moderating focus


groups on a wide variety of topics for more than 300
different organizations. As a result, I have learned some
important lessons about focus groups that I want to share:

1. You never can do too much planning for a focus


group.

The effort put into advanced planning for a group


always pays out in terms of the overall quality of the
output from the process. This includes such things
as the most appropriate recruitment parameters, the
content and flow of the discussion guide and the
"external stimuli" that are used to elicit reactions
from the participants.

2. Manage the recruitment process actively to be sure to


get the right people in the groups.

Despite the good intentions of recruitment


organizations throughout the country, the moderator
has the ultimate responsibility for the quality of the
respondents.

Because the quality of the output from focus groups


depends on having the right people in the room, I
decided years ago to invest in a full-time field
professional to focus on this aspect. This enables me
to concentrate on the actual focus group process,
including developing the moderator guide,
moderating groups and writing effective reports.

3. Don’t prejudge the participants based on physical


appearance.
I have found that the appearance of the people in the
groups generally has little relationship to how
effective they can be as participants. Further, a
participant’s not having a great deal of formal
education does not mean he or she does not have a
great deal to say about a key topic being evaluated.

Clearly it is easier to conduct and watch focus


groups comprised of attractive, articulate, educated
people. But it is vital to realize that these
characteristics are not necessarily critical to
gathering useful information.

4. The best focus group moderators bring objectivity


and expertise in the process to a project.

Specific product knowledge should not be an


important criteria in selecting a moderator because a
well-trained professional will take the time needed
to learn enough about the topic being discussed to
be an effective facilitator.

An effective moderator must be able to draw people


out in a group environment, listen well, interpret the
results of the sessions and communicate those
results effectively to the clients.

5. Achieving research objectives does not guarantee a


successful focus group project.

Some clients only view groups that educate and


entertain as an effective research tool. Others have
different research objectives that must be
accommodated before they will feel the process was
a success. These could include such things as the
decor and comfort of the focus group facilities and
the presentation of personally selected gourmet food
for the client observers.
An effective moderator must be aware of these
factors to have a satisfied client who will return.

6. The
moderator
and the
client
should
coordinate
their
efforts at
all stages
of the
process for
the
research
to achieve
its
objectives.

For the moderator, this includes obtaining client


input to the discussion guide and working with
client organizations to develop the most effective
external stimuli.

It also means regular communication between the


moderator and the client observers who are
watching a group from behind the one-way mirror.
This should take the form of face-to-face
discussions at regular intervals during the group,
rather than random notes being sent into the room at
the whim of a backroom observer.

Client observers need to be briefed about the most


effective way to work with the moderator so that
during the focus group session, minimal time is
spent communicating the maximum amount of
information.

7. Most client organizations conduct more focus groups


than are necessary to achieve the research objectives.

It is not unusual for an organization to do eight, 10


or 12 groups in a series when four or six would be
adequate.

There is no sure way to determine the optimal


number of groups in a research program, but I
generally find relatively few differences by
geographic area.

So, I encourage clients to conduct as few sessions as


makes them comfortable, with the caveat that it is
always possible to conduct more if necessary.

8. One of the most important services a moderator can


provide is a fast report turnaround.

Because of the subjective nature of focus groups, it


is common for different client observers to leave
with different interpretations of the most important
information that emerged.

By giving the client organization a full report within


three to five days after the group, the people who
attended the sessions quickly gain the benefit of the
moderator’s perspective so they can identify what
they do and do not agree with.

In addition, each of the observers can use the


moderator’s report to determine the common areas
of agreement and disagreement. This is particularly
important, as the ultimate findings and conclusions
from the research will be distributed throughout the
organization.

9. Client observers should be thoroughly briefed about


the research objectives before the sessions start.

Although most people who observe focus groups


understand the process and have watched focus
groups from behind the one-way mirror before, it
helps to review the goals of the sessions beforehand
to ensure that all the observers are in sync with the
objectives and the desired output.

This can help you avoid embarrassing last-minute


surprises.
10. The most valuable service a moderator can provide
is objective conclusions based on the interpretation of
the research, without regard for what the client wants to
hear.

It is easier to give clients good news that confirms their


beliefs, but it is a mistake to try to sugarcoat conclusions so
the client is not disturbed with the outcome of the groups. A
qualitative research consultant must offer clients total
objectively and honesty in order to provide the expected
quality of service and professionalism.

This is one of the most important things a moderator can do


for the client. It’s probably the only one in which the
moderator has a unique position because the client
personnel who attended the sessions have their own internal
agendas for the research that affects their interpretation of
the research results.
What are Focus Groups? And why we use them?

Most people love to be asked their opinion and they're generally not shy about
voicing it.

A focus group is basically a way to reach out to your potential users for feedback
and comment. Organizations generally use focus groups in planning, marketing,
or evaluation, either to improve some specific product or service or, more
globally, during the development of strategic plans or mission statements.

In the context of CIMEL project, focus groups help evaluate usability of the
interface and representative content. Focus groups answer questions that the
development cannot resolve and can lead to new ideas.

Specifically, the a focus group session concentrates on:

• Gathering opinions, beliefs, and attitudes about issues of interest to your


organization
• Testing your assumptions
• Encouraging discussion about a particular topic
• Building excitement from spontaneous combination of participants' comments
• Providing an opportunity to learn more about a topic or issue.

We divide the activity of conducting a focus group into ‘three main phases’:

Before The Focus Group:

1. Define the purpose, i.e. objectives of the focus group

This has to be clear and specific. The more defined the objective the easier the
rest of the process.

2. Establish a timeline

A focus group cannot be developed overnight. The planning has to start several
weeks ahead of the actual session; experts say 6 to 8 weeks realistically. Make
sure you have enough take time to identify the participants, develop and test the
questions, locate a site, invite and follow up with participants, and gather the
materials for the sessions.

3. Identify the participants

• Determine how many participants you need and how many to invite.
• Develop a list of key attributes to seek in participants based on the
purpose of the focus group.

• Using the list of attributes, brainstorm about possible participants.

• Secure names and contact information, finalize the list, and send
invitations.

Focus groups should consist of six to twelve participants. Fewer than six
participants tends to limit the conversation, because there is not enough
diversity to spark energy and creativity. A group larger than twelve gets to
be unwieldy, and voices get lost. However, you should invite more,
allowing for no-shows.

4. Generate the questions

Because a focus group will last for little more than one or two hours, you
will only have time for four to seven questions. You may to include one or
two introductory or warm-up questions and then get to the more serious
questions that get at the heart of the purpose.

To be effective, focus group questions should be open-ended and move


from the general to the specific. E.g., after asking the question, “What do
you like about the user interface?” you might ask, “If you could build a new
user interface from scratch, what would you put in to make a better one?”
or “What would make the user interface more appealing to your peers?” or
even more specific, “Do you have any suggestions about what the
personae (faces)—what they should look like or what they should do?”

• Once you have a list of questions, look at your purpose statement


again.

• Keep questions that are really important and that qualify for your
purpose. Eliminate as many questions as possible.

• Rewrite the questions with good editing.

• Order the questions that will be comfortable for the participants, i.e.
moving from general to specific.

5. Develop a script

Generating questions is a prelude to developing a more detailed script for


your focus group.
Plan on a one - to two -hour time frame. A minimum of one hour is
recommended because the process requires some time for opening and
closing remarks as well as at least one or two questions. Be cautious not
to exceed two hours.

There are three parts to a focus group script:

1. The opening is the time for the facilitator to welcome the group,
introduce the purpose and context of the focus group, explain what a
focus group is and how it will flow, and make the introductions.

2. The question section is where you ask the questions that you designed
and tested in Step 4.

3. The closing section wraps up the focus group. This includes thanking
the participants, giving them an opportunity and avenue for further
input, telling them how the data will be used, and explaining when the
larger process will be completed.

6. Select a facilitator

A focus group facilitator should be able to deal tactfully with outspoken


group members, keep the discussion on track, and make sure every
participant is heard.

The facilitator should be knowledgeable about the project. He or she can


be a staff member, volunteer, or member of a committee or task force.

Be wary of anything about the facilitator (or facilitators) that might make
participants uncomfortable. For example, you may not want the
organization's executive director to facilitate a staff focus group about a
new performance appraisal system.

7. Choose the location

You Need a setting which can accommodate the participants and where
they would feel comfortable expressing their opinions.

When choosing a location, ask these questions:

• What message does the setting send? (Is it corporate, upscale, cozy,
informal, sterile, inviting?)
• Does the setting encourage conversation?
• How will the setting affect the information gathered? Will the setting bias
the information offered?
• Can it comfortably accommodate nine to fifteen people (six to twelve
participants plus facilitators), where all can view each other?
• Is it easily accessible? (Consider access for people with disabilities,
safety, transportation, parking, etc.)

Once decided, reserve the location if necessary.

Example: Put a link or part of the CIMEL focus group script conducted in Spring
02.

Conduct The Focus Group:

It’s time to actually conduct the session!

The materials you might need for the session are:

Notepads and pencils


Computer with presentation
Flip chart or easel paper
Focus group script
List of participants
Markers
Masking tape
Name tags
Refreshments
Watch or clock

• The facilitator should arrive before the participants, set out the
refreshments, and arrange the room so all participants can view one
another -- U-shaped seating or all at one table is best.

• As participants arrive, the facilitator should set the tone for a comfortable,
enjoyable discussion by welcoming them just as would any gracious host.

• Introduce yourself and the co-facilitator, if used.

• Explain the means to record the session. Make sure you record the
session!

• Carry out the focus group as per the plan and script.

• The facilitator should have some room for spontaneity, i.e., asking
spontaneous questions that arise from the discussion, probing deeper into
a topic.

Attention to the following items will help ensure success:


1. Set the tone; participants should have fun and feel good about the
session.
2. Make sure every participant is heard; draw out quieter group members.
3. Get full answers (not just "we need more money" but "we need more
money to hire a receptionist to answer phones").
4. Monitor time closely; don’t exceed time limits.
5. Keep the discussion on track; try to answer all or most of the questions.
6. Head off exchanges of opinion about individual items.

After the Focus Group:

Make any notes on your written notes, e.g., to clarify any scratching, ensure
pages are numbered, fill out any notes that don't make senses, etc.

Interpret and Report the Results:

There are three steps to creating a report on your focus group:

1. Summarize each meeting. The facilitator should review the session with
another person to capture fresh impressions.

Finally, transcribe notes that were taken soon after the session is over and write
a summary of the focus group.

The quick turnaround time on the transcription helps avoid memory lapses. It's
easiest for the facilitator or recorder to remember what was meant by a particular
acronym or shorthand immediately following the session than it is a month later.

2. Analyze the summaries. Start by reading all the focus group summaries in
one sitting. Look for trends (comments that seem to appear repeatedly in the
data) and surprises (unexpected comments that are worth noting). Keep in mind
that context and tone are just as important as the reiteration of particular words.
If a comment (or a number of comments) seemed to be phrased negatively,
elicited emotional responses, or triggered many other comments, that would be
worth noting in the analysis.

3. Write the report. The final report can take many different shapes, but it should
include all information about the background and purpose of the focus group,
details of the sessions, results, and conclusions. One focus group report
developed for the CIMEL project is at
http://www.cse.lehigh.edu/~cimel/eval/Alpha/FocusGroupReports.doc.

You may also want to use web-based surveys as a way to gather information
from users; this has the advantage of providing information that is more
quantifiable, but has the disadvantage of generating less discussion. An
example of a survey is available at
http://www.cse.lehigh.edu/~cimel/eval/beta/EvalBeta.htm and the results are
dynamically generated at
http://www.cse.lehigh.edu/~cimel/eval/beta/ResultsByQuestion.htm. CIMEL
researchers can generate comparable surveys and results easily. The results of
surveys can be combined with a focus group report, or described separately.

Now this report now ready for ‘translation into action’. Note that the researchers
might be different from the people who organized the focus group, but they need
to be aware of the focus group report in order for implementation of major issues
that have been brought to attention by the group.

Example: Put a sample report link or part of it here.

Here are some suggestions for translating the results into action:

• Schedule a meeting to review the summaries and discuss their implications.


• Put the focus group information in context. Refer to your purpose statement and
analyze the answers or insights the focus groups gave you. Compare, contrast,
and combine the focus group information with information gathered from other
sources such as surveys, interviews, or secondary research sources.
• Highlight the main themes, issues, problems, or questions that arose in the
focus groups. Discuss and record how you will address these.
• If there is a lot of information, prioritize it. Then decide what actions need to be
taken with regard to the priority items.

Sources:

Judith Sharken Simon, How To Conduct A Focus Group


http://www.tgci.com/publications/99fall/conductfocusgp.html (primary)

Carter McNamara, Basics of Conducting Focus Groups


http://www.mapnp.org/library/evaluatn/focusgrp.htm#anchor911239

The Small Schools Project, Conducting Focus Groups


http://www.smallschoolsproject.org/tools/files/focusgroups.PDF
It can be hard to break away from groupthink. A lack of creative, diverse thinking can
lead to rash business decisions. Focus groups are a good way to avoid this. They are a
form of analysis where people can voice attitudes or feelings toward certain projects,
services or products. Running a focus group allows you the chance to possibly predict
how your target market will react.

How to Set up a Focus Group

• You need to know your target market and identify participants within this market.
Screening potential individuals to ensure accurate candidacy is a good idea.
• A moderator for the focus group should be assigned. They are there not to run the
conversation, but to help it move along. Having a list of goals or topics to discuss
can be a helpful tool for a focused conversation.
• A good moderator will pull new open-ended questions from the information
communicated and keep the discussion flowing. It is helpful if they are someone
from outside of the project, whether it is a person from a different department of
the company, or a hired professional. This way no biased opinions or results will
occur.
• Finding a good location is also key. Choose something with easy access that will
encourage individuals to come. In addition, group members should feel
comfortable in their setting; it makes sharing and contributing thoughts easier.

Tips to Remember

Even though the structure is to be an informal discussion, it can never hurt to plan in
advance. Location, needed equipment, and any compensation should be considered well
in advance for the meeting. Most small focus groups will have anywhere between five
and 12 participants.

Contact the potential group members before the session to confirm there is still interest to
participate. A phone confirmation does not ensure their participation; if you desire to
have a certain number individuals present, it does not hurt to have more candidates than
required.

Recording the session will help your team remember key points. A moderator, or any
invited observers, will not be able to record every detail. Using a tape or video recorder
will also provide insight on tone of voice or facial expressions.

Holding more than one session will increase the success of achieving your goal of
understanding your market and what they desire from your product or service. Repeated
ideas or criticisms will begin to surface, which makes the information more reliable and
accurate.
Listen to the results of the group. If there are negative findings, it does not mean you
need to scrap the project. It gives you a chance to improve the project, or keeps you from
losing money and time in the long run.

Amy Bax is interested in providing innovative informational resources to entrepreneurs.


She is currently an MBA student at the University of Missouri - Columbia.